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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Not Seeing Pink

In the news this week, a discussion about teachers’ use of multicolour marking, with a flurry of fractious articles about the madness of systems employing up to six different pens or highlighters, sparked off by the current Secretary of State for Education, the fatuous Nicky Morgan, who in decrying these methods said something sensible just for once.

Some teachers have revealed they are barred from marking in red and must now instead use pink, a much gentler colour supposedly less likely to give children a sense of failure. One teacher said he was required to give feedback by drawing pink boxes which had to contain positive encouragement in green and progressive guidance in pink. Others described so called “deep” or “rainbow” marking systems employing coloured pens and highlighters, in which yellow, pink, green, orange, blue and purple each have a precise function in sustaining a dialogue of feedback and response between marker and learner. If you are sufficiently self-flagellating to want to see the intricacy of one such scheme (or perhaps an ambitious teacher seeking advancement through the micro-management of others’ working practices), you can download this fourteen page document from Thameside with which, one presumes, all teachers in the school must be familiar and fluent.

Well, I am no better qualified than Ms Morgan to pass an opinion on what would seem to be an onerous detraction from the real task in hand, instigated purely to impress OFSTED, but I would like to make one contribution.

I am reminded of a member of the administrative staff in my last job, who helpfully went through lengthy sets of minutes and specification documents highlighting in pink all the points that required my attention. I had no idea at all she was doing this until one day, after around three years, I missed something important.

You see, I can’t see pink highlighting. Not for me the glorious kaleidoscope of autumn colours: the glow of rowan berries in the late evening sun. Red and green look nearly the same. Orange is bright green (or should that be red?). And purple just looks blue.

Apparently, tyrannical technicolour marking prevails over inclusivity.

Monday, 21 March 2016

The Ascent of Man

Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals: so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape – he is a shaper of the landscape.

Everyone needs at least one role model to inspire them: probably more – different role models for different roles. One of mine came in the unlikely shape of a little man with glasses who dressed like my grandfather and had trouble pronouncing his ‘r’s.

How could anyone be so clever? How did Jacob Bronowski’s life come to be filled with such grand ideas while mine was littered with the tedious transactions of budgets and profit margins? Why was his world populated by brilliant minds while I shared mine with dreary accountants and businessmen? Why couldn’t I shape the landscape rather than being just a figure within it? I wanted to be an omniscient polymath too.

I missed most of Bronowski’s momentous thirteen-part BBC television series The Ascent of Man when it was first broadcast on Saturday evenings between April and July, 1973. I would have been out at the pub. Even when it was repeated at the end of that year, twice a week on both Thursdays and Sundays, I doubt I caught it all. But it affected me profoundly.

Bronowski was passionate and mesmerising, with fascinating hand gestures. He spoke straight to the camera in precise sentences for minutes at a time without background music, rapid cuts or unnecessary images. Yet he held your attention. He gave us a warm, intelligent, gimmick-free exploration of science and humanity. It was unsettling that a single individual could be so knowledgeable about so many varied subjects, from architecture to evolutionary biology, from poetry to relativity. When he appeared on other programmes, such as Parkinson, you realised he was not reading a script. The breadth of his knowledge and understanding were genuine. 

I bought the book. I read it, and then read it again. I knew all thirteen chapters. Turning through the pages now brings back so many fascinating things: the flying buttresses of Rheims Cathedral where the building hangs like a cage from the arched roof; the Peruvian city of Macchu Picchu; a demonstration of the Pythagorean proof in the sand by drawing real squares on the hypotenuse and the other two sides; the coloured shafts of the spectrum that beamed out of Isaac Newton’s “Triangular glass-Prisme”; Gregor Mendel choosing to test for seven differences between peas when he could not have known that the pea had just seven chromosomes; the surreal massive model head, several metres across, that was detectable by a radar scanner while the real man standing beside remained invisible to its long electromagnetic wavelength.

Of course the answer to the riddle of Bronowski’s erudition, as he himself might have said rhetorically, is that the man was a genius. When the television series was repeated again in 1975, I saw every episode, and something else then struck me. It was that Bronowski’s journey through science was personal and autobiographical. He recalled his own moment of revelation around 1950 when he was working on a mathematical model of the teeth of an Australopithecus baby, the Taung skull, to discriminate them from the teeth of apes, when, “... having spent a lifetime doing abstract mathematics about the shapes of things,” he said I “... suddenly saw my knowledge reach back two million years and shine a searchlight into the history of man.” From that moment his commitment moved from the abstract to the human.

He was able to talk about periods in his career when he had collaborated with other people of genius. He had known Einstein, Daniel Lehrman, James Watson, Leo Szilard and John von Neumann. He spoke of them with fondness and enthusiasm.

He remembered Einstein’s lack of materialism in lecturing at Cambridge in an old sweater and carpet slippers with no socks. He talked of afternoons spent with Leo Szilard at the Salk Institute in California, and recounted a tale about the moment when, in a mental flash, Szilard conceived the idea of the nuclear reactor. He had stopped at a red light, and before the light had turned green had realised that if you hit an atom with one neutron, and it broke up to release two, then you would have a chain reaction. The only improbable part of the story, said Bronowski, is that “I never knew Szilard to stop for a red light.”

Bronowski described John von Neumann, the founder of game theory and computing science, as “the cleverest man I ever knew,” and “a genius, in the sense that a genius is a man who has two great ideas.” He shared an anecdote of how, during the war, after they had been discussing a particularly difficult nuclear problem, he had telephoned von Neumann early the next morning to tell him he was right, and von Neumann complained that he only wanted to be telephoned early in the morning to be told when he was wrong.

This anecdote served to illustrate how von Neumann was in love with what Bronowski called “the aristocracy of the intellect”, with which he fundamentally disagreed and considered dangerous. What we need, he argued, is “democracy of the intellect”, where knowledge sits with people who have no ambition to control others. Elsewhere, in what is perhaps the most often repeated sequence from the series when he walks into the pond at Auschwitz crematorium and scoops up the mud of human remains, he talks of the dogma and arrogance that comes from a false belief in absolute knowledge. He talks about the devastation of Hiroshima. It was a moral and ethical lesson that all knowledge is imperfect. Bronowski would surely have been dismayed by the Monty Python quip that he knew everything.

Even today, despite subsequent developments in computing, neural imaging, molecular biology, robotics, and so on, his book and series remain an exemplar of intelligent broadcasting. I was in awe and in envy. His intellect ranged across areas as diverse as literature, poetry, art, architecture, chess, mathematics, nuclear physics and biology, and yet he retained a deep sense of humility.

It was unsettling. From that time I wanted to embark upon my own version of his personal journey, starting by going to university. It felt a failing not to have been. I was drawn towards the ideas Bronowski had talked about: the human sciences, cultural evolution, psychology, sociology and anthropology. I had no idea where it might lead except that it would be a step in the right direction. At twenty-four, without university entrance qualifications, when it was not easy to get in, when completing a degree was just as difficult, it seemed a mountain to climb, but I knew I had to try.

* Use of the image of Jacob Bronowski and the cover of ‘The Ascent of Man’ is believed to constitute fair use.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Tackling Rugby

“Tackling should be banned from school rugby,” campaigners argued this week. Well, that would be a start, but I would go further and ban the whole hideous game completely. After that I would erase it from the record books as if it had never existed. 

I detested rugby from the moment it was forced upon us at grammar school. Having moved from junior school where we played football, where I had even been good enough to get picked briefly for the school team, I was dismayed to find myself in a place where football was proscribed. It was what they played at the modern school across the road. It was perhaps the only point in favour of failing your eleven plus.

The doctors and academics behind the campaign base their proposed tackling ban upon sound foundations: they have convincing data to show that most rugby injuries and concussions occur in tackles. The figures for days lost from school, serious fractures, head and spinal injuries, cognitive impairment, not to mention death, make alarming reading. These things can have lifelong consequences, and not only for those receiving them.

On the other hand, I am prepared to accept that for some adolescent boys, and I emphasise some, teachers and rugby enthusiasts who want to retain tackling might also have a point. They say that rugby helps build character for the very reason that it is risky; that it provides the kind of physical challenge gradually being removed from everyday life; that it develops masculinity by putting the body on the line; and that it leads to increased confidence and self-esteem.

But I pay little attention to any of these arguments, reasoned or not. I just dislike rugby. I am not particularly competitive and don’t like shivering outdoors in hailstorms, slithering around in freezing mud while others try to knock the hell out of me. I have no interest in the game at all whether Union or League, touch or contact. I have never had any inclination to watch it on television, not even when England won the world cup in two thousand and something. And I am certainly no connoisseur of other men’s masculinity, no matter how intimate the scrums.

It’s all the fault of Mr. Ellis. Woe betide anyone with the effrontery to bring a note from their parents hoping to be excused because of some insignificant ailment such as a broken arm or bronchitis. He expected you to get stuck in to the scrums and tackles just the same, without any protection from degenerate appliances like gum shields, jockstraps or “tower of power” body posture.

The nastier the weather the better. Thick fog was one of his favourites. It was ideal for practising high kicking: blasting the ball up into the air and wondering who it was going to strike when it came back down again.

And when the pitches were too waterlogged to play on, there was tackling practice. You were paired off with a partner who would run slowly away as you charged up to tackle them from behind. You dived shoulder-first into their bum, bringing the cheek of your face firmly against their thigh, while simultaneously circling your arms tightly around their legs to bring them down into the mud. You had to be careful not to fall on their boots in such a way as to injure yourself where it hurt most. You then swapped round so that your tackling partner could do the same for you.

By far the most important concern in this was to make sure, at all costs, you were not paired off with Ivor Longbottom. Never has anyone been more aptly named. He looked as if he had two rolls of stair carpet stuffed down the back of his shorts, one each side. He must have had a body mass index of over forty. You would have had more chance of success trying to tackle one of those huge leather vaulting horses in the school gym. When you dived at full speed putting all your weight through your shoulder into the back of one-half of his enormous longbottom, you just bounced off ineffectually as he continued to trundle away still wondering when the expected tackle was coming.

The other way round, him tackling you, was too awful to contemplate. Even when the mud made it impossible to run, you had to make sure you were quicker than him so he couldn’t catch you, and hope Mr. Ellis did not notice. Being tackled by Ivor Longbottom would have been a sure way to get yourself included in the injury statistics, had anyone then been concerned enough to bother collecting them.

When it came to rugby games themselves, my main objective was to keep as far away from the ball as possible, and if by some accident or misfortune it came to me, to get rid of it immediately. It was an effective strategy. It ensured I never got picked to play with the heavy mob: the sturdily built lads who played rugby for the school and seemed to like nothing better than pulverising each other flat into the mud. These were the bullies who, on seeing someone thin like me in their way, would run straight at you with maximum momentum, leaving you with little choice but to get out of the way or suffer serious bruising. I almost did have to face them once when Mr. Ellis mistook me for someone else who had “... had a good game last week” and should “... see how you get on in the first team.” It was a close call, but I managed to convince him I was not who he thought I was, and had no inclination to “... well, let’s see how you get on anyway.” 

I suspect that to get into college to train as a games teacher there used to be two essential requirements. One was that you had to be able to convince them you were good at sports, and the other that you had to be a sadist. With Mr. Ellis it must have been touch and go on both counts. He was never ever observed to participate in any game or sport for more than a couple of minutes, nor was he a total sadist – he was a good way along the scale, admittedly, but he had been known in rare circumstances to excuse people from rugby. Those at death’s door might be allowed to run up and down the touchline waving a flag, and those already dead to go off and help the school gardener.

I must have been very effective at appearing dead because I spent quite a few games periods sweeping up leaves. Only once did I have to act as linesman, but turned out to be so inept I was never asked again. Evidently, to be a linesman, it helps if you understand the rules of the game.

Dreadful game!

Andrew Petcher is another blogger who hated rugby at school, as recalled in a post with a great punchline. Clearly, bloggers tend not to make good rugby players.

It was apparently a Chancellor of Cambridge University in the eighteen-nineties who came up with the oft misquoted comparison between football and rugby. Studiously taking care not to say which was which, he observed that: “one is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans; the other a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.” (see the saintsandheathens blog)

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Haunted Houses

The 1939 Register
Somewhat obsessively, I have been an active researcher of my family history for over twenty years now, buying countless genealogical resources and subscriptions. Along the way have been some surprising and even astonishing findings, as well as many mundane, but in February when the findmypast site released a new resource, The 1939 Register, I experienced an entirely new reaction.

Rather like a census, The 1939 Register records the names and addresses of everyone living in England and Wales on the 29th September, 1939, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. It did not go into as much detail as a normal census, but was carried out in a similar way for wartime purposes: to issue national identification and ration cards, to administer conscription and to plan population movements in the event of mass evacuation. It was later used by the National Health Service at its inception in 1948. As no census was taken in 1941, and as the records for the 1931 census were destroyed by fire during the war, the Register is the most complete survey of the population between the as yet unreleased censuses of 1921 and 1951.

What makes it different for me is that, as a snapshot taken just over a decade before I was born, The 1939 Register is almost contemporary. Other population surveys such as the 1911 census were from so long ago that just about everything has since changed, which will also be true of the 1921 census when they finally let us see it, but much of the information recorded in The 1939 Register remained unchanged into the nineteen-fifties. Many of the same people were at the same addresses as I remember them. If my parents were still around they would be fascinated.

I can see the two-bedroom terraced house my parents rented from 1946, where I first lived. It is occupied by a canal tugman and his family. They had brought up six children there. Wherever did they put them all? 

The people next door are the same as I remember, as are those at the corner shop next-door-but-one. Across the road is the same gentlemen’s hairdresser, then newly married. He would remain there with his wife, childless, for the next thirty years. It was where I used to be sent for my hair cut – short back and sides the only style on offer – every three or four weeks throughout the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties. Once old enough to go unaccompanied, I would wait my turn in the smoky den of his barber’s shop (it would never have been called anything so epicene as a salon) trying to make sense of the swaggering conceits of the older customers. From time to time the hairdresser’s timid wife would materialise at the through-door from the house to leave a cup of tea, and then dematerialise as silently as she had arrived. 

In the mid nineteen-fifties we moved to a new address, up in the world to a small semi-detached house. The 1939 Register shows it occupied by the shipwright’s family we bought it from. The adjoining neighbours were still there when we moved in, father, mother and grown up children. The mother and father would die in the nineteen-sixties but one of their daughters would remain in the house, unmarried, for the next sixty years. The neighbours at the other side are a young widow still in her thirties and her elderly mother. They too were still there when we moved in. The mother died soon afterwards, but the widow remained long after we had left until she died at an advanced age in the nineteen-nineties. Up and down the street are so many other familiar names: the master mariner; the butcher; the mother and her daughter who in turn became the mother of the boys we played with when they visited their grandma. 

The Register is more flexibly searchable than almost any previous resource. Whereas the censuses, for example, can be trawled only in limited ways, The 1939 Register search is so powerful you can find almost anyone, even when they are partially mistranscribed in the index. The main limitation is that you are not supposed to be able to see anyone born less than a hundred years ago, although often you can. In most households, such as my father’s parents’, the children are blacked out, and only the names of the adults are shown. But despite being born in the nineteen-twenties, my mother can be seen with her parents, her name amended after marriage, a result of parts of the Register continuing in use with the National Health Service until 1991.

You can find just about any house built before 1939. In Leeds I can see the elderly couple I lodged with in 1970 at the same Kirkstall address in 1939, although then they are not elderly. The husband is a railway clerk. The address also has one ‘closed’ line for their daughter who would later marry a corporation surveyor and have one son. At other places I lived, much later in some cases, the 1939 residents had moved on long before my time. One through-terrace is occupied by an engineer’s turner and his wife, both born in the eighteen-seventies. Another is occupied by a wool forman with his wife and four children. The only back-to-back I lived in is the home of a shoe repairer and his wife, both in their mid-twenties. At yet another mid-terrace there are nine residents: a couple born in the eighteen-seventies and seven grown up grown-up children. The father and one of the sons are asphalters. Again, how did they fit them all in?

Some houses I have known were larger. In the Levenshulme area of Manchester, in the early nineteen-eighties, I lived in a three-bedroom, bay-windowed terrace with front and back gardens. Next door lived a widow who in 1939 is there with her husband and mother-in-law. The husband, the neighbours and the occupants of my address have mainly clerical occupations. I still have some of the next door neighbour’s late husband’s drill bits and an ancient tobacco tin full of wire staples which she gave me when clearing out her shed. The hardware was probably there in 1939 but the Register lists only people. I lived in yet grander surroundings in the Avenues area of Hull. In my day they were already what are now called HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation) but in 1939 they were occupied by the likes of Ministers of Religion, newspaper reporters, merchants, lecturers, collectors of taxes and people of private means. 

Like having the gift of premonition, if you are near my age or older, you look through The 1939 Register and find you knew or can remember so many of those named in it. You know what happened to them, who they married, who their children were and when they died, or at the very least, what became of their houses. Do they return as ghosts to light their coal fires in the mornings, the husbands going off to work and the children to school as they must have done so many times? Do the wives cook and clean for their return? Do they relive their happy days, sad days, sunny days, rainy days, Easters, Christmases and holidays? Will we?